On June 1st 2011, Nigeria became just the seventh country in Africa and the 16th in the Commonwealth to sign a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act into law. The passing of the FOI Act is seen as a major success for democracy, press freedom and civil society in the country and positions Nigeria as a leader in its region in this regard.
One commentator, Chidi Odinkalu, the senior legal officer for the prestigious Open Society Justice Initiative, suggested that the Act is “arguably the most exciting legislative odyssey in postcolonial Nigeria.” This statement is hardly an exaggeration. Beginning as a pipe dream in 1993, during the reign of Sani Abacha, the bill and its supporters fought tooth and nail, jumping hurdle after hurdle, to finally achieve this victory.
From a public relations perspective the new law will be transformative[CS1] , especially for work related to public affairs, government relations and social marketing. Ordinary statistics and documentation, so fundamental to our public relations practice, historically have been exceedingly difficult to extract from the government partly due to the oppressive Official Secrets Act. Under the new FOI Act, the Official Secret Act and the litany of other government excuses and outright refusals need no longer be accepted.
That’s not to say the FOI experience will be perfect. There will be growing pains:
– Nigeria’s civil service continues to be largely paper-based, and a scattered one at that, making retrieving documents a difficult affair.
– Political will and effective implementation of the Act will face challenges from officials claiming they are withholding information to protect national security.
– The FOI Act presently only applies to federal documents. Each state will need to pass it and so far only two of the 36 states in Nigeria have the bill before their Houses of Assembly.
These growing pains present very real challenges for the Act but none that can’t be surmounted if one thinks of the determination and commitment that continue to back this Act. Plus there are other reasons for optimism:
– The federal government and some states are taking steps away from the paper-based system by digitizing their documentation under the banner of good governance.
– Requests for information can be written or verbal, from any individual, and the burden of proof is on the government to demonstrate why it cannot release documentation.
– The implementation will be highly scrutinized by a vocal civil society and an increasingly strong judicial system, both of which will advocate for its nation-wide passing and enforcement.
Indeed, today we are in a new era. The Nigerian government has taken a bold step forward that will benefit professions across the board. It is a step that should be celebrated and closely watched but most importantly, tried and tested to ensure the benefits transcend beyond paper and into practice.